I recently went to Sondrio, a town located in the Valtellina region, mainly known as a ski resort and for its red wines
made with Nebbiolo
grapes of which Sforzato della Valtellina
, sometimes referred to as the Amarone della Valtellina due to the similarity in the winemaking process between the two wines, is their flagship. It was my first visit, I had been before in the mountains surrounding the town in a summer camp, but never stayed in the town.
As soon as I arrived, I immediately loved the town, everything was calm and tidy. Sondrio is about two hours from Milan, but the beautiful panorama along the way and the nice weather makes the journey go fast.
One of the things I miss the most living in England is a proper Italian ice cream, I do love making mine and is very good according to my friends, however, I can only make a couple of flavours at time, so every time I go back to Italy I always look for an artisan “gelateria” and indulge on ice creams, whether summer or winter, whether sunny or freezing and Sondrio was not an exception.
However, this trip wasn’t about ice creams, it was about food and wine, tasting plenty of local specialties, the Bresaola is possibly the most famous, matched by local wines, wandering around in between tastings. And on my first day, in the evening, just before another very late dinner, Italians dine late, in one of this walks, I came across a little shop (in the photograph) and immediately reminded me of when I was a child, when every town, especially small town and villages, relied on them for their food, before soulless supermarkets came along.
Not only these shops where the heart, the centre of the community, but villagers depended on the expertise and knowledge of the retailers and everything was as fresh as it could have possibly been, and the fridges were full of local produce. Everything was freshly sliced, nothing pre packed, and the retailers knew every single produce, their origins, their characteristics and their differences. I hadn’t seen anything like that for a very long time, supermarkets are now everywhere with their average products, shops have become a rare sight.
We had dinner in a very small restaurant, there werent many, especially in the town centre, and we opted for the one that had more local dishes, we were not after a pizza. We chose a very small restaurant, only a few tables, with only a few options for each course and a big wine list made almost entirely with wines from the area, wines made from local producers we knew nothing about, and like a good local would do, we ate local food, from polenta to bresaola and bitto, the cheese, matched by local nebbiolo in all forms and shapes, we had several bottles from different producers and areas. Some good some less, and we learned a lot about the region and its characteristics and were very surprised to find out that a relatively small region had several subregions, all growing Nebbiolo, but all producing different wines, sometimes very different.
The next morning, after breakfast, I went straight to the shop I had seen the night before and as soon as I entered the place, it was like a walk down memory lane, suddenly my mind was full of images of my childhood, smiling, holding my mum’s hand in our local shop whilst being given bites of cheese and slices of ham to stay quiet, some child is happy with chocolate and sweets, I was in heaven with cheese and ham, and I still am.
Once the memories had gone, I started talking to the lady behind the counter, she was very nice and happy to talk to me, asking plenty of questions about their produce and tasting them, discussing supermarket’s impact on her business and their average and anonymous produce.
It was a very small shop mainly focused on local produce, with plenty of cheese, mainly Bitto, and Bresaola, different producers and ageing, and I was really happy and surprised to see in an era where we buy everything from our supermarkets that locals were still shopping there, it felt really good hearing the lady welcoming each and every one of her customers by name and knowing exactly what they wanted or needed. This is something I had not felt for a long time and something you only experience in shops run by people, passionate and knowleagable people. After having spent about an hour in the shop and having tasted everything I could, I bought a big bag full of specialties and took them back home and enjoyed with a few friends and some more Valtellina wine, not before hugging the lady and thanking her for her time.
I travel a lot up and down Italy and I had not seen anything like this small shop for a long time, I cannot even recall the last time I did, but I miss buying food that way. It was more than just buying food, it was suddenly being introduced to the people making it, being educated, becoming aware of the food I was eating, appreciating it. Nowaday, is all about price and retailers like the lady are hard to find, quality is a just a logo on the box, produce are tasteless and anonymous, they could come from Italy or Brasil and we would not know, everything seems to be and taste the same. Prosciutto is not a prosciutto and Bitto is not just a Bitto, there are plenty of shades and differences in between and by shopping the way we do, we miss them.
In 3 days in Sondrio, despite all the local wines and food, I did not see a drunk or obese person and I don’t think it was a case, I believe there is a correlation between supermarket food and obesity and binge drinking.